We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cane Toads & God

Source: animals.nationalgeographic.com
Cane toads are a large, poisonous species of toad that originates in South America that has spread widely throughout northeastern Australia.  A recent ABC Science article entitled, "Toad personalities key to territorial takeover," cites scientific evidence that suggests that the key to the cane toads ability to expand its territory in Australia has to do with "personality".  Some toads are more adventerous than others—bolder, more likely to head off into new feeding territory on their own.  Other toads are more timid and unlikely to go into new feeding territory.  The article concludes that the mix of bold and timid toads is a factor in the cane toads success in Australia.

Who would have thought that cane toads even have personality, let alone that it is apparently important to the species ability to adapt?  Such a possibility causes one to consider the potential role that personality plays in the larger, evolutionary scheme of things.  We know from experience that many other species have personality and that personality is of crucial importance in human social interactions.

The concept of personality is also important theologically.  Christian theology across the board assumes and asserts that God is a person and has the marks of personality (loving, compassionate, cares about justice, is "slow to anger") exemplified for us in Christ.  Trinitarian Christians believe that God is actually three persons (persona), Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  While professional theologians understand that the Latin term persona does not mean "person" in our English sense, the vast majority of English-speaking Christians translate the "personhood of God" as meaning God has personality.  It can be argued that this idea that God is a person who has personality is but another case of us creating God in our own image, which has pretty much been my own personal view for a long time.  It seems ludicrous on the face of it that the Divine Creator Beyond could in any sense have something as human and mundane as personality.

Still, it is worth considering that personality as a tool of our evolutionary development reflects a predisposition of the Creator, perhaps even an aspect of divine reality.  It remains entirely speculative to assert the personality of God, but it is less speculative to claim that personality is somehow within the "providence of God" and again somehow compatible with "God's will for humanity."  At the very least, it would seem that our having personalities is not a barrier that stand between us and God as such.  Certainly, the way we express personality can be a barrier, but it is not inherently so.

If, then, we apply the English-language conception of person to God as a metaphor we are not asserting something necessarily illogical or out of sorts with modern science—so long as we remember that we are using personhood metaphorically.  It functions thus as a helpful "mask" (the original Latin meaning of persona) of the Divine Beyond, which remains unknown to us directly.  It is not wrong to think of God in personal terms including the ides of having a personal relationship with God.  Whether or not God is a person or has personality, we can legitimately experience God in these terms—and think of God in this way.  It is, we might say, in our God-given nature to do so.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Religion and Power

In his preface to the "Tenth Anniversary Revised Edition" of The Rise of Western Christendom, Princeton historian Peter Brown observes that the actual physical and cultural boundary between the Roman Empire and the "barbarians" of northern Europe was not nearly as absolute as the Romans themselves claimed.  The world on either side of the boundary, that is, was strikingly similar in many significant ways.  Drawing on the work of another historian, John Drinkwater, Brown argues that, "the emperor, military, and civilian populations alike needed the idea of a 'barbarian threat' to justify their own existence." (p. xiv)  He goes on to state that, "Altogether the Roman government had a way of rendering absolute boundaries that were, in reality, extremely permeable." He refers to those boundaries as "an ideological Iron Curtain." (p. xv)  The boundaries we draw on a map, in sum, are about power and control, which are fundamental factors in human social organization.  Boundaries are artifacts of our minds that are "socially constructed realities."

And many of the boundaries that we "draw" have nothing to do with maps at all.  They invariably do have a great deal to do with power and control.  Religious doctrines comprise often function as boundary markers.  Believers in a particular set of doctrines stand on one side of a boundary and unbelievers and doubters on the other side.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been suffering through a prolonged debate over the boundaries between those who consider homosexuality a sin and those who do not.  We have fought other fights, notably over the nature of the Bible.  In these battles, we engage a very human practice, the describing of boundaries between us, which boundaries are as much about power and control as anything else.  If that were not the case, the constant ecclesiastical splits that have taken place among Protestants since the earliest days of the Reformation make no sense at all.  Once we reach a crucial boundary such as the redefinition of marriage, we refuse to be bound by the authority of those on the other side of the boundary.  We migrate to new institutions and loyalties.

This is all well and good.  It is the way we humans do things.  What is worth noting, however, is the ways in which all of us seek to fit God into our boundaries and make Jesus the lord of our territory alone.  All of us do this.  And it is right here that our human instinct for social control and power fails us for what we call "God" is rendered merely a god of our own making, and we turn our search for the ultimate into a debate over who is right, who is wrong, and who has power and authority.  We erect Roman boundaries to divide a territory that actually isn't all that different on either side of the line however much we convince ourselves otherwise.  It's worth a thought.